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The elephant in the room: Taking on debt for IR

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Hi all, I just thought it would be a good idea to start a thread and chronicle any insight offered by applicants, current students, and those who have already graduated/well into their careers about decision-making when deciding to take out loans, the psychology and process of going into debt, and the practicalities of living day-to-day with a decade or more of repayment in a field where salaries rarely go into six digits. I hope this can be a substantive, meaningful thread that will serve as a guide for those currently weighing their options, as well as future applicants. At the very least, it might help out the few people I've seen casually mentioning the $120,000+ in loans they'll be incurring.

My story: I was accepted to all of the schools I applied to, which is obviously great. But I know deep down that sometime in the next few weeks I'll have to face the facts: I will have to turn down my #1 choice (dream school since 2004, believe it or not) and opt for the school that I know will be financially much less burdensome in the long-run (compare, at least according to rough calculations and allowing for wide margins of error the cost for two years' tuition/living expenses-- Dream School: $65-80,000 no possibility of part-time job vs Other School: $15-25,000 w/PT job $35-45,000 w/o PT job). It is of course an adult and wise decision to make, but that doesn't make me feel any better about it.

Naturally I'll survive and don't get me wrong, I feel so fortunate to be in such a privileged position (I'm not sulking around the house all day or anything!). But I still wanted to solicit the opinions of the GradCafe govt/IR/MPA/etc. community about your personal stories, rationales behind taking on your loan commitments, debt in general for degrees in this field, living with repayment, pros/cons, anything---whether you're applying to schools, currently enrolled, or even paying off your loans as we speak! Thank you!

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Personally, I've been very narrow-minded with my grad school applications. I am focusing on going into currency or political risk analysis in Japan, a country that I've been singularly involved with since college, where I've lived for several years while working with the government, and for whose government I currently work for at a foreign mission. I only applied to four schools that had four general things in common: international name-recognition and marketability, specifically in Tokyo; above average academic program and alumni network in Japan; strength of economics and finance classes, and above average record of private sector employment for graduates.

The entire grad school idea has been predicated on making significantly more than I do now, in fact doubling my salary of 2 years ago within the next 3 years (my five year goal, which I now have 3 more years to achieve, is doubling my then average salary). I considered an MBA, which would be more applicable to the private sector in general, but given the specific field I wanted to break into, it seemed a big name IR degree with a heavy focus on economics and finance would not only leave me better prepared academically, but would give me the same if not better networking abilities as an MBA.

I'm getting ready to live like a pauper during grad school and live fairly modestly afterwards in order to pay off debt, but I'm banking on an increased salary to help me do that in less than a decade, hopefully five years. One thing I learned from my sister, who went to a top law school and is now a federal prosecutor, is that it's good to keep your style of living in check early on in your career, so as to not pick up expensive habits that lock you into a certain job or field. Though she didn't have to deal with debt (full ride to one of the best law schools in the world; talk about big shoes to fill!) I think hers is a good example to follow.

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I'm not in this cycle (looking towards applying for entry in either F13 or F14), but I intend to avoid debt as ardently as I can. Having just paid off my undergraduate loans completely, I am reluctant to incur additional debt. I consider a lack of debt to itself be a form of freedom, making unorthodox professional and personal opportunities possible, instead of always being forced to consider the weight of monthly loan payments.

So in the process of selecting programs to apply to, one of my main criteria is going to be the scale on which financial aid is offered (SIPA's off the list). I am going to determine a threshold, based on my finances at the time of application, of a level of loans that I would be prepared to take on. If I'm not accepted to any programs that offer financial support allowing me to stay under that level of loans, I'll simply wait until a future cycle to reapply.

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People underestimate the degree to which they can avoid debt if they are willing to put in the work to improve their admission profile.

I would argue that many critical admission/fin-aid metrics, including GPA, GRE, obtaining internships/jobs (not necessarily your performance in them), and foreign language boil down to who cares more. Not inherent intelligence, not your financial resources, not where you were born. Effort, pure and simple. Put in the work, and you get paid for it (literally).

If you spend 4 hours a night studying in college, you're going to have a great GPA. If you spend 500+ hours studying for the GRE, you're going to have a sick score. If you are willing to troll online for hours to find relevant internships/jobs and send out 20+ applications, you're going to get one. If you take time every single day to study a foreign language, you will become proficient in it. Polishing your SOP, researching your schools to detail exactly how you are a fit for them - so much of apps (and life?) comes down to desire. There are trade-offs involved: time you spend doing those things means time not spent with friends, lovers, a good book, a sunny meadow on a spring day. It might not make you happier, or well-rounded. But if you put in the work, I guarantee someone will give you admission + serious funding.

I'll be attending one of my top schools on a full ride. It didn't just happen - I did all the things mentioned above, and more. Sometimes it sucked, GRE prep particularly so, as I ended up at about 750 hours prep time. But the thought that kept me going was that not being able to attend grad school, which I wouldn't be able to sans major funding, would suck infinitely more. So I put in the work, and now I get to go to school for free. Not because I'm smarter (guarantee that's not the case), not because I'm richer (my bank account laughs at this): because I cared more, and did the work other people weren't willing to do.

You can write this off as self-aggrandizement. Or get upset because you didn't get the financial aid you wanted and think I'm insinuating you're lazy. But fundamentally, grad school admissions and fin-aid are not mysteries. Everyone knows the things they look at to make decisions. It's your choice whether you invest the time and out-work competitors.

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MYRNIST, I agree with most of what you said, and without judging or knowing your personal background, I'd like to make one caveat: When you have to work your way through university, taking the amount of hours you've taken to study, and adding onto it unpayed internship is simply not possible. And while I agree, that most middle class people can do that, there is a point where financial background does stop you from getting there.

Now, going back to the discussion in the thread, let me ask for advice in this field. Going to school in DC was one of my dreams. I'm a foreign Fulbright fellow, which means I'm basically on a full ride, but Fulbright picks the school. While being applied to SAIS, and SFS, I've also been applied to Korbel and Syracuse.

I'm genuinely thinking of turning down Fulbright if it's offered for Syracuse, and taking on debt to go to a DC school, if even a minimum amount is offered by the university. Now, given the fact that I plan to stay in my country, and not move to the US or Europe after graduating, that debt gets even more frightening (salary levels here are lower).

Am I being a moron? Being offered this great opportunity and turning it down to follow the dream? (all hypothetical ofcourse, till Fulbright decides to tell me their decision.).

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People underestimate the degree to which they can avoid debt if they are willing to put in the work to improve their admission profile.

I would argue that many critical admission/fin-aid metrics, including GPA, GRE, obtaining internships/jobs (not necessarily your performance in them), and foreign language boil down to who cares more. Not inherent intelligence, not your financial resources, not where you were born. Effort, pure and simple. Put in the work, and you get paid for it (literally).

If you spend 4 hours a night studying in college, you're going to have a great GPA. If you spend 500+ hours studying for the GRE, you're going to have a sick score. If you are willing to troll online for hours to find relevant internships/jobs and send out 20+ applications, you're going to get one. If you take time every single day to study a foreign language, you will become proficient in it. Polishing your SOP, researching your schools to detail exactly how you are a fit for them - so much of apps (and life?) comes down to desire. There are trade-offs involved: time you spend doing those things means time not spent with friends, lovers, a good book, a sunny meadow on a spring day. It might not make you happier, or well-rounded. But if you put in the work, I guarantee someone will give you admission + serious funding.

I'll be attending one of my top schools on a full ride. It didn't just happen - I did all the things mentioned above, and more. Sometimes it sucked, GRE prep particularly so, as I ended up at about 750 hours prep time. But the thought that kept me going was that not being able to attend grad school, which I wouldn't be able to sans major funding, would suck infinitely more. So I put in the work, and now I get to go to school for free. Not because I'm smarter (guarantee that's not the case), not because I'm richer (my bank account laughs at this): because I cared more, and did the work other people weren't willing to do.

You can write this off as self-aggrandizement. Or get upset because you didn't get the financial aid you wanted and think I'm insinuating you're lazy. But fundamentally, grad school admissions and fin-aid are not mysteries. Everyone knows the things they look at to make decisions. It's your choice whether you invest the time and out-work competitors.

That's good advice for current undergrads and people not applying this cycle, but it's incredibly obvious and has little to do with the questions of the OP. Of course you should work your ass off to get the best applications possible. I think the better question for discussion is, assuming you have done that, what is an acceptable level of debt for a given program? Should you really go into $60k of debt for this program or that program, or should you take the money and some other program?

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Who had the audacity to vote down MYRNIST's post? That was a very thoughtful -- and substantiated -- account of how to position yourself to get a good offer, and not just an offer.

I am not in IR, but now that my decisions are in, I feel increasingly averse to accumulating $80K+ in debt for my Masters. And, as I'm sure a lot of you can relate, that would be added to a little under $30K from undergrad. What is the incentive? We're all looking at employment prospects that will not yield amazing salaries out of the gate, and it seems foolish to start a $50K job with double that in debt, at the age of 25 or 26. The prevailing wisdom from those who have done it is to wait, gain a little more experience and/or improve your application... and that grad school isn't going anywhere.

Perhaps taking another year (or two) off would be best. For me, that would mean retaking the GRE and really dedicating myself to it, getting another internship or two, taking a couple of prerequisite courses at the local CC, and saving a little money.

Edited by cunninlynguist

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While I agree with cunninlynguist, as the question posed whether debt/level of debt should be an option for an IR degree, the answer was a bit off topic. I mean, we could have all spent that little more time interning, studying, working our butts in college for a better grade, but those things are no longer in our control. Assessing this next part is as much a part of the graduate school application cycle as the GRE.

Me, I'm stuck with a difficult decision. Georgetown gave me nothing, whilst Chicago Harris, UCSD and LSE have yet to get back to me. Waitlisted at Tufts while screwed at SAIS. All in all, I got two great schools and two so-so while waiting for another. More likely then not, I'm getting very little. But that's not because my profile sucked or I didnt work hard enough, its because the competition is so fierce that some people are just fortunate to get accepted to their choice of schools.

Similar to cunninlynguist, it may be a case where I may need to defer for another year as well and reapply. I'm confident in my profile this year otherwise I wouldnt have applied but looking around, an extra year of work experience, or a few more classes. It can't hurt.

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Work hard. Utilize the networking oppurtunities that DC presents to you. I think you can land an excellent job, following solid internships. If you are willing to put that effort, I think it's worth the debt in IR.

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That's good advice for current undergrads and people not applying this cycle, but it's incredibly obvious and has little to do with the questions of the OP. Of course you should work your ass off to get the best applications possible. I think the better question for discussion is, assuming you have done that, what is an acceptable level of debt for a given program? Should you really go into $60k of debt for this program or that program, or should you take the money and some other program?

I think it's relevant. It's saying if OP wants to, he/she might consider re-applying next cycle, and use the time in-between to really boost his/her profile. OP clearly is a good applicant, based on the list of accepted schools. With more work experience, higher GRE, more language, maybe some part-time classes with A's, I bet OP would get great funding.

If it's so obvious that you can transform your candidate profile, why do so many people create a false dichotomy of big debt, top school vs. less debt, second-choice school? Why not do the work to get less debt, top choice? I am not the only poster in here saying that taking a year off to improve yourself is a highly viable option.

Edited by MYRNIST

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Anyone have a suggestion on what is an acceptable/manageable amount of debt for an MPA/MPP degree? My options range anywhere from a full ride at a lesser known school to about 60k for ivy league. How much debt are you willing to take on for a stronger program?

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A big part of my decision to attend LBJ was financial. I was accepted to a couple of DC schools, but with little financial aid. Between the higher tuition and higher cost of living in DC, I was looking at about $80,000 more over two years to go to school in DC. As much as I wanted to go to school in DC, I knew that I wanted to go in to government or NGO work and I just couldn't bring myself to spend $80k more to be in DC. On the other hand, between financial aid, working, my savings, and the lower cost of living in Austin, I graduated from LBJ debt-free which was a great feeling to have when I graduated since it meant that I had more options and didn't have to take the highest paying or first job that came along.

If you're interested in working for the federal government, where you go to school will have very little effect on your starting salary. The salary determination process is more or less an equation of education + work experience = GS level X, step Y. The brand name of a school might make a difference in opening doors at NGOs and make a small salary difference, but probably not a big enough difference to offset much extra debt since salaries are generally lower in the NGO/non-profit sector. If you've got your heart set on consulting, then the extra debt to attend a more prestigious program might be worth it, but if you change your mind partway through the program you could be stuck with consulting anyway to pay off the debt. If you come in to the masters as a mid-career student with a lot of work experience though, you could have a higher salary after graduation, so a larger debt payment might not be as big of a problem.

After graduation, I started working with the federal government at a little over 55K in DC, which is more or less average for someone with a master's and a couple of years of work experience. After taxes, social security, etc, I was left with a little less than 40k/year to live on. That's manageable in DC especially since I'm single, but if I had a large student loan payment like the $600-$900/mo payments you can incur if you take out $60K-$80K of loans or had a family, it would be really tough to live in the DC area on that. My salary has gone up a bit in the almost 3 years since I graduated, but it would still be tough if I had a huge loan payment every month. Without debt, I'm able to live comfortably, though not lavishly, save for future needs, and put away some money towards a down payment on a condo/house later on.

Also, being in DC can give you a leg up in networking, especially for the private sector and NGOs, but all of the big policy schools will have a decent alumni network in DC and the big employers of MPP/MPA/IR grads will hit the big policy schools. We had recruiters at LBJ from a lot of government agencies, several consulting firms, and many different international and DC-based NGO/Non-profits. So, while I was initially a little apprehensive about going to school outside of DC, I don't really think it hurt me in the long run. I got 2 great federal internships and then was eventually hired by one of them. Now, I'm in DC and have been able to take advantage of the LBJ alumni network here and build my own network through my current job and living in DC.

It's ultimately a personal decision, since everyone has a different tolerance for debt, but I generally don't think that a lot of debt is advisable or necessary for most MPP/MPA/IR grads since salaries are not usually that high. I also think that the name of the school, while not irrelevant, is not as important in the public and NGO/Non-profit sector as it is in the private sector. So, paying big bucks for a name brand is not as important as it might be for law schools or MBA programs. For example, a person that I met at an admitted student day for LBJ when I was trying to decide where to go ultimately turned down LBJ to go to HKS. We now work for the same employer, doing the same job with the same promotion potential, and my salary's actually a bit higher because I had a little more work experience before being hired. He has a ton of debt that he's trying to manage, but I don't.

I also think that, if you don't have a good match between program fit and financial aid, it is worth taking another year to work on your application package and/or research other schools. If you got in to top ranked program X with no funding, chances are good you'll get in there again or at least in to a similar program if you apply later. In the mean time, you can do things to improve your application package like trying to boost your GRE, improve your resume, improve your statements of purpose, etc. You can also consider casting a wider net when you apply to schools the second time around because maybe you can get in to slightly lower ranked school Y with decent funding and have similar career prospects after graduation.

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Personally, I'm not totally freaked out about taking on $50-60,000 of debt for tuition. It is the idea of taking on debt for cost of living that I am struggling to wrap my brain around. No matter what, I will work part-time during school but that won't fully cover living expenses. I'm seriously considering working full-time and studying part-time, but am not sure if this is the right option for me. I have to do more research into deferment of undergrad loans if I'm only part-time (I have ~$15,000) and eligibility for grad loans if you're only part-time.

Then there is the part of me that is thinking about waiting a year (or more). I'm definitely ready to continue my education. I finished my undergrad a semester early because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and was getting a pretty general degree. I've had my current career goal in mind ever since then and am confident it is the right direction for me. But if I don't go to school now, I'd like to be at my next job for another 2-3 years. I think it really takes at least that long to learn the ropes, get a significant amount out of the experience, etc.

Additionally, I don't know if waiting a few years will really improve my chances at financial support. I had a rough freshman year (2.5 one semester... ouch) and my gpa was only a 3.3 overall (last 60 credits is more like a 3.6, as is gpa within my major). From my perspective, undergrad GPA is my biggest hurdle. I've been told by or heard about several schools where without a 3.5 undergrad, you will not be considered for merit aid. On the flip side, maybe a few more years experience and retaking the GRE to improve my quant (only 70%, verbal was over 90%) could help me get aid. I wasn't on the lookout for the big fellowship opportunities in the Fall due to some personal circumstances, so maybe down the road I would be able to receive more outside funding.

One of my biggest concerns is asking my recommendations to do it all again, especially as I don't have frequent communication with my undergrad professors anymore. I feel poorly about asking them to do it again when I was confident I was ready for school (as were they). What do others think about this?

I'm going to visit GWU & AU next weekend, since they are really my top choices right now. But I have no idea what I'm going to do at this point. On the plus side, I have a month to figure it out.

Edited by K.Ash

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I'm in a similar bind, I got basically a full ride from IHEID, but 20.000 US from JHU SAIS. JHU SAIS has been my dream school ever since I started this process, so I'm really thinking about how/if I could make this work. Counting my savings etc., I'd have to take out about 65.000 US $ in loans. Of course I've heard once you're there, it's supposed to be easier to network and get more funding, but is that really something I want to bet on. In addition, fellowship awards are checked yearly, so it might be possible for me to get more money for the second year. But if none of that works out, I'm going to be stuck with 65.000 US$ in loans. Since I'm thinking about doing a PhD afterwards, the decision is even harder.

I'm currently leaning toward referring for a year, working in that time and being close to my home country so I can apply to financial aid from there. They have three huge programs for citizens to go to the US to study, so that's a definite possibility. It's just the looking for work part I'm struggling with ATM...

On the one hand, I'd hate for financial considerations to limit my grad school choice, on the other hand, 65.000 US$ in loans is a lot of money...

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I think this is a very relevant question even for people who did get lots of funding but are weighing their top choice at a higher price tag. I have full offers + stipends from two great schools, but want to go to my top choice (Georgetown) that has a far more relevant curriculum for me, but doesn't give out stipends. I got the highest scholarship they offer for full tuition, but it still wouldn't cover high living costs in DC. That's an estimated $22.5k per year, or $45k over two years. Not an insignificant sum.

So do I reject being paid the equivalent to go to the other schools and never having to worry about $, or do the program I want most but struggle/borrow to offset cost of living? It's obviously a very privileged choice to have to make, but it's still a significant trade-off in terms of financial vs. other considerations. Jury's still out...willing to hear any advice at this point.

[Edit: for the record, there is no need or way for me to defer and improve my profile to expect better results.]

Edited by piquant777

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So do I reject being paid the equivalent to go to the other schools and never having to worry about $, or do the program I want most but struggle/borrow to offset cost of living? It's obviously a very privileged choice to have to make, but it's still a significant trade-off in terms of financial vs. other considerations. Jury's still out...willing to hear any advice at this point.

I'm also making a $45k+ choice between two schools. Especially after interest, that's roughly equivalent to a year of salary in my early career. I'm tempted to overspend and go to the better school, for the long term good of my career. However, if I'm truly concerned about my long-term career there's probably better uses for that $45k+. I could afford to take on a less-paying but more promising job, or be better able to work for the employer that I believe in, or have more time and resources to study, write a book, etc.

Is deciding to pay extra for a better school about weighing the long term against the short term? I'm prone to think that prestige is over-priced, not under-priced, so I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of going to my second-choice, and best-funded option.

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MYRNIST, I agree with most of what you said, and without judging or knowing your personal background, I'd like to make one caveat: When you have to work your way through university, taking the amount of hours you've taken to study, and adding onto it unpayed internship is simply not possible. And while I agree, that most middle class people can do that, there is a point where financial background does stop you from getting there.

Now, going back to the discussion in the thread, let me ask for advice in this field. Going to school in DC was one of my dreams. I'm a foreign Fulbright fellow, which means I'm basically on a full ride, but Fulbright picks the school. While being applied to SAIS, and SFS, I've also been applied to Korbel and Syracuse.

I'm genuinely thinking of turning down Fulbright if it's offered for Syracuse, and taking on debt to go to a DC school, if even a minimum amount is offered by the university. Now, given the fact that I plan to stay in my country, and not move to the US or Europe after graduating, that debt gets even more frightening (salary levels here are lower).

Am I being a moron? Being offered this great opportunity and turning it down to follow the dream? (all hypothetical ofcourse, till Fulbright decides to tell me their decision.).

If you plan to go back to your country, which is being in DC so important? Getting experience in DC is great, but (in my personal opinion) not worth the price tag unless you want to work in DC/the United States.

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Of course I've heard once you're there, it's supposed to be easier to network and get more funding, but is that really something I want to bet on. In addition, fellowship awards are checked yearly, so it might be possible for me to get more money for the second year. But if none of that works out, I'm going to be stuck with 65.000 US$ in loans. Since I'm thinking about doing a PhD afterwards, the decision is even harder.

This is actually something that I've been wondering about as well, and was hoping to get some clarity on. I'm sure I've actually read the answers to this somewhere, and know that if I simply contact the school they could probably provide me with the required info, however I'm in 'grad cafe' mode right now, so I’d rather ask the question here!

Hopkins SAIS states of its webpage:

"Funding comes from federal, university, and private sources (such as corporations and foundations). Aid is awarded on an annual basis, and students must reapply for aid for their second year in accordance with stated deadlines and procedures. Recipients of SAIS fellowships in the first year may expect the same in the second year if they maintain satisfactory academic progress, have no failing or incomplete grades, continue to demonstrate financial need, and are full-time students. SAIS cannot be responsible for funding non-SAIS fellowships for the second year."

What about students who were not offered SIAS funding/fellowships the first year (the application cycle right now.) Would such a person be able to go to a school (SIAS, to any other) their first year, incur 50K$ in debt, and then apply for merit-based/school funding for their second year? Or, do schools follow the premise that 'if we don't want to offer you merit based scholarships upon entrance, don't expect to be able to get one a second year either."

It makes reference to those who already have obtained one for year-one, but what about those who did not obtain it their first year?

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I’m not pursuing IR, but I do intend to go into government/NGO type work when I have my degrees, so I’m in a similar bind. Technically, I’m still waiting to hear from Ford about funding, but I’m not very optimistic—I did well enough on the GRE, but my GPA was less-than-stellar (3.35) and I’m only one year out of undergrad. I chose only to apply to U-M this year because it was one of few top programs I found that offered the accelerated MPP/MPH track, and because I’m a Michigan resident—the in-state sticker price is especially important to me, considering that I intend to take on a third year of tuition and living costs (which bumps me up to the ~100K range everyone here is talking about).

Even so, I’m balking at the thought of committing to the costs. There’s a chance I could score an assistantship—I’ve actually already applied for GSI positions—but it’s unlikely that I’d know for certain before April 15. That’s just not a gamble I’m willing to take right now, while I’m fortunate enough to have a full-time job with some pretty great benefits, so I’m looking seriously at my option to defer enrollment for a year. Right now, I would need to be offered an assistantship with tuition + stiped, or aid in excess of what I can reasonably expect to earn/save over an additional 12 months at my current job to consider enrolling this fall.

Ideally, I’d love to not take on any debt, but that hinges pretty heavily on securing some sort of assistantship (luckily, I’ve heard promising things about GSI/GSSA positions at Michigan). More practically, I’ve set an upper-limit of graduating with no more than $30-40k in loans. This should be less than my starting salary (I hope) and I feel it’d be manageable to pay back over 5-10 years.

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What about students who were not offered SIAS funding/fellowships the first year (the application cycle right now.) Would such a person be able to go to a school (SIAS, to any other) their first year, incur 50K$ in debt, and then apply for merit-based/school funding for their second year? Or, do schools follow the premise that 'if we don't want to offer you merit based scholarships upon entrance, don't expect to be able to get one a second year either."

It makes reference to those who already have obtained one for year-one, but what about those who did not obtain it their first year?

My interpretation is that when schools have 2nd year students re-apply for funding, or have 2nd-year only fellowships/scholarships (which most of them do), it's because they can better gauge your academic merits once you're at the school. Say you're one of those people who doesn't test well, and so didn't get a merit fellowship though you got in on the strength of your SOP/WE/LOR. Well, when you've cultivated a great relationship with your professors, are contributing every day in class and writing academic-journal level essays, they feel a lot more comfortable giving you a substantial fellowship for your second year.

First-year fellowships are for people who knock their applications out of the park; second-year fellowships are for those who excel once at the school.

Now, as for the debate about costs of attendance--I encourage everyone to really dig deeply into the numbers at each school. For example, I've been accepted to UC San Diego IR/PS (waiting on funding, damn them) and wait-listed at Johns Hopkins SAIS. You'd think, just looking at the school names, that UC San Diego would be much more affordable; it's a state school, it's not in DC, etc. However, once I crunched the numbers there's a slightly different story there. UC San Diego is a little more expensive for the first year, and for the second year it is cheaper but not by tens of thousands. I've actually laid out the costs in a google spreadsheet, which you are all more than welcome to look at. Since all the numbers up at schools right now are not for the next academic year, I was very pessimistic in my estimates of how much COA would go up (10% per year).

I think it's well worth the time to dig into the COA numbers; for me, I managed to shave a few thousand off of JHU-SAIS by inputting my current numbers (I live in the suburbs outside of DC so I have a good gauge of living costs). Even more, I figured out what the price difference is between the two schools, and how truly expensive even a state school can be without financial aid.

For me, the bottom line comes down to a few options: if I get significant funding from UCSD, pack up for the West Coast; if I don't, decline and wait to hear from JHU-SAIS while job-hunting in DC; if I get middling funding from UCSD, think hard about whether I really want to go to a non-DC, middling but not elite reputation school in order to save $30,000 on my loans.

Now, as to whether that $30,000 of savings is worth it--well, that's when you dig out student loan calculators and statistics on your ideal job sector. Grad PLUS loans are currently a fixed 7.9% rate, which is what you would top off your costs with after funding and the max $20,000 in Stafford loans at 6.8%; you can go to the Direct Loan site and plug in your debt (COA - funding - $20,000 @ 7.9%, plus $20,000 @ 6.8) and your timeline (10 yrs? 25?) to figure out your monthly payments. Can you comfortably cover that, plus existing debt, in the job you realistically think you can attain?

Private-sector-aimed students can potentially cover higher loan payments than NPO/public sector students; however, if you're okay with having the government forgive part of your loans and think the program will be around in 10 years, NPO/public sector professionals can enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (make 120 payments while employed by a 501©3 or public agency, and have the government wipe the slate clean on the rest of the debt).

As I think you can tell from all the numbers I'm throwing around, I'm trying to make my decision as rationally as possible and take a good hard look at the kind of debt I'll be taking on. This is actually because I didn't really think as hard as I should have about it when I applied to grad school; I chose my schools by curriculum, reputation and my interactions with their respective staff and alumni. Now that I have to think about funding (or lack thereof) and am no longer in my daydream of "of course I'll get aid!" I need to take all of that emotion out, and evaluate whether it's really feasible for me to go to grad school right now or if I should look for a job, boost my credentials, put aside some funds and re-apply next admissions cycle.

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Yea, way to go Oregongal. Good to know somebody is on top of things! Unfortunately, when I made a spreadsheet of my own, SIPA turned out to be TWICE AS EXPENSIVE as the other schools, which pretty much puts it out of the running for me. Good to know though!

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Is there a way we can take only the skeleton of that spreadsheet to do our own calculations? Oregongal's is so well-done I don't trust myself with making my own...:)

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Thanks for the praise guys--really though, this is what I did to make myself a little less freaked out by the big numbers schools were throwing around. Also, I've updated the UCSD numbers a bit--the format on their financial aid page had me double-counting the school fee, so instead of being slightly more than JHU the first year it's slightly less. After reading an article about how CA public schools have been trending with tuition hikes the last few years (yay reduced public funds, not) I've adjusted those estimates to 15% increases year-to-year.

For those who are interested in the loan breakdown, there's now a second tab which shows how I came up with my numbers and the estimated monthly payments through the various plans.

I've just opened up the spreadsheet for view; if you want to you can download the spreadsheet or copy it to your own GDocs account.

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